Elixium

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Chapter 28 – Mortido

Dave Doherty smiled down at Charlotte. He couldn’t believe she was six already. She was sitting on the kerb in her yellow raincoat and wellingtons. Liquid rainbows formed where the sunlight hit the pools of oily water collecting in the gutter. The Volvo shimmered. They’d sponged and hosed the car down; then he’d waxed and buffed the ice-white body until he could see his reflection.

“Daddy,” said Charlotte as she watched soap suds slipping down the drain. “Where does the water go?”

“It gets cleaned, and then it goes back to the sea,” Dave said. He thought about the dirty water flowing away to be purified. The idea pleased him. “Water needs a wash too.”

Charlotte giggled. He looked at her proudly.

After finishing the car, he collected the bucket and sponge and wound the hosepipe around the cart. Around halfway, the handle stiffened—the mechanism jammed by a knot. He yanked the hose out to start again. His back muscles stiffened. A nasty buzzing sound filled his ears—a migraine was coming on. Closing his eyes, snapshots of a club infiltrated his mind: strobes and bodies dancing in rhythm. Muddy bass sound but no drums, as if underwater. These flashbacks to the 1990s jungle scene tormented him occasionally—frightening apparitions of ravers with gurning mouths and wild, demented eyes.

Charlotte sploshed around the puddles in her wellies, playing chase with herself. She emitted a high-pitched scream.

Dave covered his ears and resisted the urge to shout at her. For fuck’s sake, be quiet! He sank to his knees, his head throbbing.

“What’s the matter, daddy?”

“I’m okay,” he said, clutching his temples. He supposed these headaches were his brain’s way of punishing him for his misspent youth. He longed for some codeine and the refuge of a darkened room.

A little arm wrapped around him—the wet raincoat cold against his neck. She’s such a sweet girl, he thought. The acute pain subsided, leaving a dull ache.

“Let’s go inside,” he said, picking her up and spinning her around. Her childish giggles filled him with remorse for nearly shouting.

What’s wrong with me?

He was on the verge of tears. He’d lived in domestic bliss for years without a single dissatisfied thought. It was a perfect Sunday morning in August; the sky was electric blue and cloudless. So why did it feel so wrong?

*

Reuben Fenwick awoke with a start, finding himself in the East Wing of his stately home in Kent; his favourite of his family’s many properties across the country. He heard a knock at the door.

“Come in,” he shouted.

A maid—a tall, dark-eyed, young woman with short, black hair—entered the bedroom. She held her head high, balancing the dish containing his breakfast on one arm. Observing the required protocol, she did not look at him and gracefully slipped into the room, but a slight wobble of the dish on her arm betrayed nervousness. Sloppy, Reuben thought. He made a mental note to deport her back to Chile or whatever shithole country she came from.

She settled the dish on the table. “Organic avocado on a single slice of toasted sourdough bread, with a soy latte made to your exact specifications, steeped for twelve minutes then reheated to eighty-seven degrees Celsius.” The maid curtseyed, but then, with a quivering jaw, looked straight at him.

She has the gall to look at me in my private quarters? I’m definitely deporting her. Reuben wafted his hand to shoo her away.

“Forgive me, sir,” said the maid, the whites of her eyes exposed. “But I must show you today’s headlines.”

He realised there was a folded newspaper sandwiched between her upper arm and side. Nervously, with her head tilted downwards like a repentant child, she placed a tabloid before him.

This better be good, he thought. Splashed across the front page was the headline: Elixium CEO Must Resign Says Chief Medical Officer.

What? The furore over Elixiflu had died down recently—in fact, they’d almost settled the lawsuit. So why had it erupted again, bigger than before? The paper had even included a large and unflattering portrait of him underneath the headline; the angle made his nose look huge. Reuben scowled, crumpled the paper between his fingers, and then launched it at the maid. She didn’t try to avoid the projectile. She moved closer to it, but his throw was poor and it settled at her feet.

“This is outrageous!” His face should never appear on the cover of a cheap rag. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he shunned the limelight and preferred to shelter in relative obscurity. How dare that two-bit doctor take a shot at me in public! “Bring me the phone,” Reuben barked. He’d set up a Venom Empire meeting immediately and give them a piece of his mind.

“I know it’s unusual,” said the maid. “But a man rang this morning. He’s sending a limo to collect you.”

“Good.”

“But sir—”

“What?”

“There’s a news crew outside. They came early this morning. They want to… how do you say? ‘Doorstop’ you.”

“I’ll leave around the back,” Reuben hissed.

“And Sir—”

“What now?”

“You cannot bring your wooden object. Your skull. They forbade it.”

Reuben raised his eyebrow. What on earth was going on?

*

The limo took Reuben to a Tudor hall in a private country estate, nestled between acres of landscaped gardens. In the distance stretched a tapestry of hills, farms and bright yellow fields of rapeseed. Birdsong filled the air, and he could smell the sweet aroma of honey from the beehive in the garden, but this did nothing to quell his anger. He clenched his hands into fists, determined to root out the wretched scum who’d conspired against him.

Inside the hall, around a large table, Reuben found a select few members of Venom Empire. The gathering mainly comprised the British members of this now global institution. Glancing around the table, he recognised a judge, a police chief, a former home secretary, a bishop, a baroness from the House of Lords, a media tycoon, several MPs and the executive director of a multinational defence contractor. A few American tech billionaires were also in attendance, including Fry Brandenwine, a spotty teenager who’d conquered Silicon Valley. Beside him sat a dog-faced bald man—the CEO of Danube, the world’s largest e-commerce firm. Further provoking Reuben’s ire, the Chief Medical Officer, who had called for his resignation, lurked at the back.

“Let’s skip the pleasantries and get down to business,” said Reuben. “Frankly, I’m disgusted. I understand the need to deflect criticism over Elixiflu, but asking for my resignation? Outrageous!”

“You misunderstand us,” said Robert Blakestock, a liver-spotted octogenarian who owned over ninety percent of the world’s media. “To the public, the Elixiflu scandal will be why you resign, but we’ll keep the real reason secret.”

“You’ve put us all in danger!” The Baroness—whose name he couldn’t recall—blurted out.

He frowned. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Project Blue Butterfly,” said Tristan Moon, the former home secretary, with a thin clump of salt and pepper hair atop his wide, spherical head. “You told us everything was under control after the… mishap. Now we learn, indirectly, that the subject has installed a tracker on that stupid skull you carry around with you. He planned to gate-crash one of our meetings and murder us all!”

“Rubbish,” said Reuben. Tom had been compliant for years, cleaning shit for Metanox.

The judge shot him a sour look. “You doubt us?”

A chill trickled down his neck. It’s true!? Tom turned against him!?

Tristan Moon cleared his throat. “Luckily, we kept a close eye on the subject and a psychiatrist who is helping him.”

Hypocrite, thought Reuben. Remember the time a reporter caught you in silk stockings and suspenders in a South London brothel? Who saved the bacon then, fuckface? And this is how you repay me?

Fry Brandenwine, the acne-ridden tech billionaire piped up. “We’ve tolerated this obsession of yours for far too long.”

Baroness What’s-her-face agreed. “You’ve put us all in grave danger!”

“Project Blue Butterfly is too extreme,” said Brandenwine. “It’s unnecessary in the digital age. Big data-analytics and predictive algorithms—that’s where our focus should be. Making better use of the masses of information the public surrender every day.”

Rubbish, thought Reuben. “You’re wrong. This is a big mistake.” He’d never shared the pre-pubescent upstart’s faith in computer modelling. He much preferred the velvet glove and iron fist approach. “Mark my words, you’ll lose control.”

“Face it, Reuben” said Brandenwine. “You’ve been pwned.”

“You’re being excommunicated from Venom Empire, and you must resign from Elixium Pharmaceuticals,” said the judge, a sallow-faced weasel with a penchant for buggering barely legal gay boys. “We will permit you to remain in middle management, however, you must leave the upper echelons with immediate effect.”

Middle management?! Is this some kind of joke?”

“None of us are laughing, Reuben,” said the Baroness

“No,” said Reuben, stamping his foot on the floor. “My father was the Grandmaster for decades, while most of you were still shitting your nappies! My Grandfather started Elixium, and we’ve worked tirelessly ever since to further the agenda. We’ve done more than any other company! I’m born to be a part of this!”

“Then you should know we do not tolerate failure,” said the judge. “You’re a petulant, power-drunk buffoon.”

Reuben folded his arms. “I refuse.”

“Great,” said the police chief, rubbing his hands and turning to Brandenwine. “Let’s ice the bastard.”

Reuben expected others to back him up. They’re not seriously considering offing me, are they? But none of them uttered a word. The silence made his heart race. “Don’t do anything rash… I’ll deal with the subject.”

“No need,” said the judge. He prodded his notepad. “It’s the next item on our agenda.”

“Let me do it,” said Reuben.

Brandenwine scoffed and pushed his spectacles back in place. “And give you another chance to screw things up?”

“Not this time,” said Reuben. “Let me do it. I’ll prove to you why I’m so pivotal to Venom Empire.”

The party members looked around at each other, murmuring under their breath.

“You have twenty-four hours,” said the baroness. “Report back when you’re done, we’ll need to organise a full gathering and discuss how to take things further.”

*

Josh tossed and turned in bed as midnight chimed on the grandfather clock. It was a hot and sticky night. He got up and opened the patio door, then sat at the writing desk in his boxer shorts drinking a glass of cold water. A breeze swept in through the open door, circulating against his legs. A sudden buzzing sound jolted him upright—the cheap mobile phone he’d bought to keep in contact with Tom Toombs was vibrating on the desk.

“Tom. Is everything okay?”

“Just checking in. Reuben’s home, and I’ve got a good reading on the tracker. Once he makes a move, I’ll be ready.”

“Remember to keep your distance. The limo driver will look for tails.”

“I know. I’ll keep out of sight.”

“Good and—” Josh heard a noise. What was that? He scanned the room. The cottage’s bookshelves were full of old, unloved novels with yellowing pages. A growing breeze entered the study through the patio door, the ceiling-to-floor velvet curtains undulating like a purple ocean. His mind conjured phantom shapes in the flowing folds of fabric. Was there someone waiting behind the curtains?

“What’s up?” asked Tom.

“Nothing.” He opened his desk drawer slowly and felt around inside. Rummaging beneath the pencils, rolls of tape and sticky notes, he felt the cold metal of a pistol. He’d given Tom Toombs some money, and he’d visited some dodgy acquaintance and bought two handguns. They attended the Bristol Pistol Club for some practice sessions at their range, an activity he enjoyed far more than he thought he would. Perhaps his enjoyment related to what Freud called Mortido, the death instinct. This concept had always resonated with him, although like most psychiatrists he regarded Freud as an overrated quack.

“Good luck. Let me know when you’re done.”

“Sure,” said Tom.

The moment Tom hung up, he pulled the pistol from the drawer and spun around to face the curtains. He raised the pistol, chambered a round and took the safety off.

“You can come out now,” he ordered.

No response. Tiny, almost imperceptible noises tickled his ears. The creaking bones of the old cottage? Or something more sinister?

“I know you’re there. Come out now, or I’ll shoot.”

An intruder emerged from behind the curtains, dressed head-to-toe in black. A balaclava covered his face. The pointed edge of the dagger in the intruder’s hand gleamed in the half-light.

A satisfied smile rose to Josh’s lips, despite his thundering heartbeat. “Did you think I’d be unarmed? You shouldn’t have tried to scare me with the skull and snake.” By sending him the package, they’d given him the upper hand. “Now drop the knife and put your arms up slowly.”

The knife clattered on the wooden floor, and the intruder slowly raised his arms.

“Take the balaclava off.”

The intruder unpeeled the disguise, revealing a middle-aged man with a crew cut. An ex-army type, he thought.

“What’s your name?”

“Chadwick,” the intruder grunted.

Psycho Chad. He remembered Isla mentioning that name. “So you’re the hit man?”

Chad said nothing.

“Did you kill Dimitri Lebedinsky?” He rose to his feet and probed Chad’s tiny, shark-like eyes for answers. “The Russian gymnast. Doesn’t ring a bell? How about Isla? You’ve killed so many, haven’t you? Do you even remember their names?”

Chad remained silent; maddeningly calm. Josh stepped forward. He wanted to hear this monster’s confession, and make him cower on bended knee, pleading for mercy.

Chad nodded and whispered. “I remember your sweetheart. I did the world a favour by choking that poofter.”

Anger seized Josh’s thoughts, tempered by memories of Dimitri. He remembered kissing and holding him close at the top of Cabot Tower as they looked out over the misty city. Dimi’s angelic eyes. His cool, pale skin. The mist swirling all around them.

Lunging, Chad knocked the gun from his hand and pounced on him. He hit the floor, pain firing through his shoulder. A fist smacked him in the head and then gloved hands gripped his neck. Chad squeezed him tight, cutting off his air. Josh reached out for the pistol. It was close, but he couldn’t quite grasp it.

Chad’s grip around his neck suddenly loosened. Chad coughed, his face pale with shock and pain. Josh felt blood splattering on his face.

Someone else had entered the room—another intruder. They’d crept behind and stabbed Chad in the back. A pair of hands rolled the body off him.

Josh looked up to see Christophe.

“Jesus Christ,” Christophe barked at him and screwed up his nose. “Who ate all the pies?” Christophe had permed and dyed his hair black. He wore a sleeveless running top which displayed his toned arms. Josh felt fat and old in his presence.

By Josh’s side, Chad coughed up more blood, his punctured lung wheezing. Christophe kicked him in his belly with his boots, then pulled the knife out of Chad’s back.

“I have to say I’m disappointed,” said Christophe. “I sent you the skull and snake in the hope you’d prepare yourself. Good effort with the gun, but as usual, if you want something doing right…” He plunged the knife between Chad’s shoulder blades, prompting a disgusting gurgling sound as Venom Empire’s hit man choked on his own blood.

Josh rose to his feet and fumbled for the pistol on the floor, but Christophe strode over and snatched it.

“I’ve got this,” Christophe said before hurrying back to Chad. He pulled out the knife from Chad’s back and stabbed him a few more times. Surely by now, he was butchering a corpse.

The doorbell rang.

“That’ll be the food I ordered,” said Christophe, finally leaving Chad’s body alone. He wiped the knife with Chad’s balaclava. “Chicken chow mein for two. Hope you like Chinese.”

Josh struggled to form words.

“Well, don’t just stand there. Warm some plates, light some candles! Do I have to do everything?” Christophe sighed and sauntered over to the front door. Moments later, he returned with a plastic bag full of tubs wafting sweet and sour sauce.

“Dining room?” asked Christophe.

Speechless and splattered with blood, Josh stepped back from Christophe.

“Fine, we’ll eat here,” said Christophe, shrugging his shoulders. “You were right about Venom Empire. We were both on the hit list. You for obvious reasons, and me? Well, I know too much, and my sex appeal is waning now that I’m almost thirty. I killed the guy they sent to my place in London. Bashed his brains in with a steel dildo. And then I fled to Bristol and tracked you down. Our first date was a little… unconventional, but I enjoyed myself. I’ve been thinking about settling down… With you.”

Josh gulped. “Why me?”

“Things got out of hand,” said Christophe. “You remember the vacuum bed? Well, there was a little accident.”

“What happened?”

“I was having some fun in my dungeon with a guy I met off the internet. We took a bit too much coke. I forgot one of my sex slaves, a traffic warden, was still trapped in the vacuum bed. He choked on his own vomit and died. I only realised a few days later. The smell when I opened the bed.” Christophe held his nose.

Get me away from this psycho! He makes Jeffrey Dahmer look like the boy next door. “Go to the police. Tell them it was an accident.”

“After clubbing another guy to death with a sex toy? They’ll throw away the key. Besides, I need your help. Kink has become an addiction. I’m not right in the head.”

“I’m not a sex therapist.”

“Yeah, but you’re in the same ball park. You’ll sort me out. Nice place here, by the way. I camped out in the garden, watching you. Good job I did, eh?” Christophe unpacked the food containers on the writing desk. “I can see you’re a little shell-shocked, but eat up. We’ve got a long flight ahead of us.”

“Flight?”

“We can’t stay here. Venom Empire want us both dead, and the police are after me. They already found the bodies at my house. Haven’t you been watching the news? I thought you might like to visit mother Russia. We could check out Dimitri’s home town. You know, I’ve been practising gymnastics. You should see me on the trampoline.”

The curly dyed black hair made sense now. The freaky fucker was trying to look like Dimitri.

“I’ll be the lover Dimi never was,” Christophe whispered.

Josh was grateful to Christophe but the young man chilled him to the bone, While Christophe opened up the takeaway packets, Josh slipped the mobile phone on the writing desk into his pocket.

“Well, tuck in,” said Christophe.

“Let me wash my face and put some clothes on,” said Josh. He smiled and crept upstairs.

*

In the bathroom mirror, Josh saw his face caked in dried blood and retched. His hands trembling, he washed at the sink, lapping handfuls of cool water over his skin. He left the tap running while he dialled 999. He asked the operator for the police in a low whisper, petrified that Christophe would hear him. A police officer took over the call and Josh reeled off the cottage’s address.

“There’s a wanted criminal here,” he whispered. “He broke in and killed a man.”

“We’ll send someone right away,” said the police officer.

“Josh?” called Christophe. “Hurry, the food’s getting cold.”

“Just a second.” He stashed the mobile phone in the medicine cabinet, flushed the toilet and hastened to join Christophe.

Back in the study, he sat cross-legged on the floor near Christophe, and opened one of the takeaway containers. The food smelled delicious, but he couldn’t bring himself to eat with Chad bleeding out on the rug right in front of him. He prodded the noodles with a chop stick while Christophe ate voraciously. You’re truly a lunatic, he thought, cycling through diagnostic possibilities. He probably has a personality disorder rooted in childhood trauma, but I don’t fancy delving into it, given he’s armed.

“Not hungry?”
Josh shook his head.

“Perhaps it’s better you don’t eat,” said Christophe. “We’re gonna have to get you on a treadmill or something to lose the flab.”

The sound of sirens filled the air. Christophe gasped.

“Lots of drug dealers around here,” explained Josh.

Blue flashing lights flooded in through the windows.

“Come out with your hands up!” yelled a police officer through a megaphone.

“How could you?” asked Christophe. “After everything I’ve done for you!”

Josh looked at Chad’s body. Well, he does have a point.

“Thanks for saving me,” said Josh. “But um… you’re not my type.”

“Fucking men. All the same.”

“Don’t hurt me,” said Josh, stepping back towards the wall as Christophe approached. “Please.” He held his breath, praying Christophe wouldn’t stab him to death.

Christophe knelt down, prized the last spring roll from the packet, and took off.

With adrenaline pumping through his veins, Josh rushed to the patio door. He pulled back the curtains and saw Christophe scaling the garden wall.

*

At the police station, Josh described what had happened and gave a description of Christophe. The detective told him they would search far and wide for the young man, but Josh suspected they’d never catch him. He described the altercation but neglected to mention Venom Empire. The glint in the detective’s eye suggested they already knew.

Christophe was right. I must leave as soon as possible.

After giving his statement, he’d took a taxi to Accident and Emergency where he waited for several hours to have his shoulder looked at. A muscular injury, the doctor said, which should heal with rest.

He returned to the cottage at sunrise. After pulling a carving knife from the block in the kitchen, he crept around the dimly lit rooms, making sure that no intruders lurked in the shadows. The police had removed the dead body from the study and the blood stained rug. Only the leftover takeaway containers remained on the side. The smell of cold Chinese and the residual metallic odour of blood made him feel queasy.

Josh tiptoed to the bathroom and found the mobile phone in the medicine cabinet. There were no missed calls or messages. What was going on? Tom should have finished by now. Receiving no answer from Tom on the phone, he quickly gathered his things into a bag. Then he left the house and hailed a taxi.

“Airport, please,” he said to the driver. Visiting Dimitri’s birth country was a good idea, he thought. He imagined a peaceful town where he could work on a new book. Two projects sprung to mind: an unauthorised history of Venom Empire and a case study on Christophe.

*

Tom had spent all day preparing for his assault on Venom Empire, regularly checking the tracking app on his phone to keep tabs on Reuben’s movements. Reuben had been home all evening, but it was Friday: Venom Empire night.

At dusk, he filled up the car, keen to ensure he had enough petrol in case he had a long drive ahead of him. He topped up the tank and rushed into the shop to pay. In his hurry, he gave the figure sitting behind the counter very little attention, took out his credit card and placed it on the counter.

“Tee?” A middle-aged man grinned at him. He had long, crusty hair, though he was bald on top. His skin and the whites of his eyes were jaundice yellow from years of smoking, and he had an unmistakably big nose.

“Steve? Is that you?”

Yes, it was Snout-Nose Steve in the flesh.

“Fackin’ ’ell Tommy Boy! Ain’t seen you in time!”

Tom smiled but said little, conscious that he needed to get back to the mansion. He didn’t want Reuben making a move while he wasn’t watching.

“What happened to your eye?”

“It’s a long story. Listen, I don’t mean to be rude, but I can’t stop. Let’s catch up another time.”

“Sure,” said Snout-Nose Steve, but he seemed in no hurry. “Well, I’m still knocking around the clubs. Moonlighting here for cash. I’ve got this band. We gonna be the next big thing. We’re talking festivals, world tours, the works. Mix of dubstep, prog rock and hip hop. You’ll love it. I’m the rapper.”

“You rap?” The thought of Snout-Nose Steve rapping made his toes curl.

“Selling our first album right here: Dope Fiends, Vampires and Multi-Coloured Unicorns. Killer title, eh? I can add a copy to the bill if you like.”

“Umm. Maybe next time. Just the petrol please.”

Snout-Nose Steve slid a copy of the CD across the counter to him. The artwork was terrible—a crayon drawing of a vampire straddling a unicorn. “I’ll give you a free copy for old time’s sake. It’s limited edition, so keep hold of it. There’s a link to our Soundcloud in the booklet. Let me know what you think. Oh, and Tee—”

“What?”

“D’yer know where I can get some Colombian marching powder?”

Some people never change, Tom reflected. Though I guess I was the same. All those years a hopeless case, deluded, like Steve. He reached into his pocket and thumbed the chip the rehab group gave him for his two weeks of sobriety. He slid it across the counter to a confused-looking Steve. “Bye, mate,” he said, and walked away.

As he crossed the forecourt, the skin on the back of his neck prickled with the sensation someone was watching him. From the safety of his car, he scanned the parked cars lining the edge of the street. It was too dark to see if anyone was inside. Shaking off the paranoia, he revved the car engine and sped into the night.

*

At 2 A.M., the app on Tom’s phone bleeped, letting him know Reuben was on the move. He’d been waiting in a lay-by, close to the drive which led to Reuben’s country estate. The app showed Reuben was getting closer. A white limo pulled out of the driveway and on to the main road.

Tom waited a few moments to allow plenty of distance between himself and the limo. Use the tracker, Tom. Don’t risk Reuben seeing you! He closed his eyes and counted to ten, then started the car. Adrenaline pumped through his body as he pulled out into the road. The unmarked country lanes snaked through woods and hamlets, illuminated only by his headlights. After a long drive, the tracker showed the limo had joined the main road. Reuben was heading into the city.

Regret entered his heart as he raced through the neon-lit streets of Bristol. He doubted he’d return. The gun, fitted with a silencer, rested on the passenger seat. He wasn’t the best shot, not least because of his visual impairment, but he hoped it wouldn’t matter. Tom refused Josh’s suggestion to wait until they had more people involved. His eagerness to avenge Isla’s death grew with each passing day. He didn’t want to miss this opportunity; he was desperate to kill Reuben and as many Venom Empire members as possible.

In his mind, the assault played out like a comic book. Once the tracker showed Reuben had arrived, he’d park and approach on foot, using the surroundings as cover to the best of his ability. Knowing Venom Empire, they’d hold the party in some shadowy building in a secluded location. He’d ambush the guards at the door and burst in to the building.

The sex slaves would scream, but he wouldn’t let the depraved orgy shock him or slow down his progress. He’d separate predator from prey. He imagined the “elite” monsters gorging on young flesh—bankers, CEOs, lawyers, celebrities, politicians, maybe even royalty… all kinds of cockroaches would try to scurry away as he turned the light on them. There’d be no escape this time. He’d line them all up, and they’d beg for their lives, but he’d show no mercy. He’d picture poor Isla and what the disgusting creeps did to her and then he’d execute them, one by one. He’d deal with Reuben Fenwick last and take great pleasure in shoving the gun in his mouth and blasting his brains out.

And after it was over, what would he do then?

*

After passing through the city, the roads became narrow and poorly lit, and soon he was driving down a dark country lane with only his headlights and the full moon guiding the way. He kept his distance from the limo as it slowed down to a halt. The app on his phone indicated that the tracking device was stationary. Tom quickly pulled over and turned off the car’s headlights. He’d walk the rest of the way.

After ten minutes walking in the pitch black, he approached a ramshackle building in what appeared to be a vast, barren, industrial estate. It was the same location he, Dave and Isla visited in 1999. Overhead power lines hummed ominously, but there was no music and nobody guarding the door. His watch said 2:25 A.M. Reuben was early, which perhaps explained the lack of door security. Better for me, thought Tom. I’ll hide somewhere inside and wait for the party to begin.

He entered the building and tripped, landing on the floor. His mobile went flying, smashing into the wall and breaking to pieces. Pain shot into his ankle. He’d twisted it. Turning his flashlight around, he discovered bricks strewn all over the place.

Doesn’t matter, he thought, rising to his feet. I’m still doing this.

He shone the flashlight around. The place was full of crap. It appeared builders and tradesmen had been using the old factory as a dumping ground. So much fly-tipping: breeze blocks, scaffolding poles, timber, flagstones, mattresses and old bath tubs. Everything was dripping wet and a noxious stench filled the air—somebody had sloshed petrol all over the place.

Venom Empire is not going down here tonight, he realised. Is this a trap?

“Tom,” a female voice called from the darkness.

He recognised the accent. It was Isla.

Impossible. He’d seen the photographs of her body.

“Tom!” the voice shouted again, making him jump.

“Isla!” he shouted back. “Is that you?”

“Yeah it’s me, get your arse down here quick!”

His heart raced. She’s alive!

He remembered the layout from his last visit. The guards had led him at gun point down a spiral staircase, along catacomb-like tunnels and into a temple, where Reuben’s father, the Grandmaster, awaited. Despite struggling to walk on his swelling ankle, he hobbled towards the end of the chamber.

I’m coming. Hold on.

Before he descended the spiral staircase, he saw a pile of broken glass and wires on the floor. He remembered the strange art piece from his visit in the late 90s—a brain in a jar of fluid connected by wires to an old computer. The brain had long since rotted away. He shuddered and descended the stairs.

The passageway was full of leaves and dead vermin. He hopped along as fast as he could and soon found himself at a crossroads.

“Isla,” he called.

“Hurry, Tom!” she shouted. He followed the direction of her voice down one passageway after another.

“Where are you?”

He dipped down another tunnel, but it was a dead end. Wait. What’s that? There was a door in the distance, ajar. His flashlight illuminated the back wall of a cell-like room. The cell’s walls wept rainwater.

“Tom,” shouted Isla, from inside.

He rushed in and found Isla chained to the wall. His heart skipped a beat. Aside from the mascara and luminous blue eyeliner running down her cheeks from her tear-stricken eyes, she looked exactly how he remembered from the late 90s. She wore long black fishnet gloves, a leather skirt and a tight pink satin top—the same outfit she wore the night they first met. They’d smoked cigarettes together under the eaves of the nightclub, sheltering from the Brizzle drizzle, while they waited for Dave.

“Tom,” said Isla, her voice cracking with emotion. “Is that you?”

“It’s me,” said Tom.

“What happened to you? You look… old. And what the hell happened to your eye?”

Her questions filled him with dread. Was he hallucinating? He’d had visions before, but this was different. He reached out and stroked her face. “How long have you been here, Isla?”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “That ass monger Chad brought me here. Then Reuben injected me with something and I fell asleep. I dreamt I was drowning in a lake. It was so cold. I could see you above the surface. I called your name over and over, but you couldn’t hear me. Has it been a long time?”

Fifteen years, he nearly said, but he didn’t want to upset her. “I’m here now and I’ll never leave you. I… I thought you were dead.”

“Osiris Bitch never dies,” she said and grinned.

“Let’s go,” he said. He took out his penknife from his coat pocket. Maybe he could prize open one of the links in the chains.

“There’s a key,” said Isla. “On a hook behind the door.”

He rushed over and found the key. It was rusty, but it unlocked the cuffs that bound her wrists. Released, Isla embraced him. Tears dripped down his face.

“Come on,” she said, taking his hand and leading him out of the cell.

They hurried through the dark passageways. His ankle flared with pain, but he gritted his teeth and hobbled along as fast as he could. Isla’s hand slipped from his own and she rushed ahead. He struggled to keep up with her.

“Slow down,” he shouted as she reached a junction and disappeared out of sight. “My ankle. I can’t keep up.”

He turned right at the junction and shone his flashlight along the passageway. The light glistened on liquid coating the concrete surface—petrol, rather than rainwater, judging by the nausea-inducing smell. There was no sign of Isla.

No. I can’t lose her again.

“Isla!”

No response.

“Isla!” He yelled at the top of his voice, the sound bouncing along the vast empty passages.

“Over here,” she shouted back.

Following her voice, he headed left at the next junction and continued along the tunnel. Running with a swollen ankle was excruciating and he grimaced. The tunnel veered right, descended deeper underground and then levelled out. He soon found himself at the foot of a flight of stairs. At the top, an old oak door stood ajar.

The temple.

“Isla,” he called.

“In here,” she replied. “Come quickly.”

He looked at his phone. According to the app, the tracker was metres away. Raising his gun, he ascended the stairs. When he reached the top, he stopped to catch his breath. He was lightheaded with the pain, and his head ached from inhaling the chemical fumes. Steadying himself, he counted down from three, pushed open the door and stepped inside.

*

The temple was furnished with red and gold rugs, just as he remembered. On a small island at the centre of a dark pool of water, accessible by a handful of stepping stones, sat a figure in purple robes and a ram’s skull mask, holding a solitary candle. A strong sense of déjà vu overwhelmed him. A vision confronted him—himself as a young man unconscious on the floor.

“Don’t take it.” He tried to warn himself. “Don’t take the Metanox!”

A soft hand gripped his arm. It was Isla. Nineteen years old and cute as a button.

Her cool blue eyes were filled with concern. “Are you ok?”

“I love you,” he said, his mind reeling. He wasn’t sure if he was dreaming, hallucinating, or had somehow travelled back in time.

“Let’s go,” said Isla, pointing back towards the oak door.

“Ok,” he said.

“Ahem,” coughed a voice. The figure at the centre of the island removed the mask. Reuben. He’d recognise that smirk anywhere. “One step ahead of you, old chap, as usual.”

Tom pointed the gun at him. He could shoot him in the heart, but the place was flooded with petrol and Reuben held a candle—a dead man’s switch.

“Put the gun down, Thomas. I can’t talk to you if you’re pointing that at me.”

Isla yanked at his arm. “Come on, Tom. Don’t waste time talking to that spunk trumpet.”

She’s right, he thought. “The time for talking is over.” They were about to leave the temple when Reuben called after him.

“Don’t you want to know about Project Blue Butterfly, Thomas?”

“Not particularly.”

“Go on, take a guess. What do you think it is?”

“Don’t listen to him,” said Isla. “Let’s go.”

Curious, he turned to face Reuben’s grin.

“I don’t know. A killer virus?” He’d heard Ronald Sykes ranting about scientists at Porton Down splicing viruses before social media de-platformed him.

“Good guess,” said Reuben. “And it’s true we’re planning on releasing a virus in a few years’ time. It’s just a little sniffle really, but it’ll give government the perfect pretext to suspend peoples’ freedoms and even better, mandated vaccines manufactured by yours truly… What’s not to love?” Reuben grinned. “But I digress. Project Blue Butterfly is much more personal… to you.”

Tom sighed. “Stop toying with me. If you’re gonna tell me, tell me.”

“There’s a neural stimulator implanted in your midbrain, interfacing with your limbic system.”

“A neuro what?”

“A brain implant. The device became fully functional the night you visited Venom Empire. We activated the pleasure module the first time you took Metanox. My primary aim with Project Blue Butterfly was to control your behaviour, but in phase one we experimented with cognitive enhancement.”

“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” said Tom.

“Your remarkable ability with numbers came on rather suddenly, didn’t it? You may remember a few months before your fifteenth birthday, you had an operation to remove your tonsils. That’s when we installed the device. And yes, your late father allowed us to do it, put you forward in fact.”

“Bollocks.”

“He’s dead, Thomas, but he’s not an angel. He wanted you to get ahead, and you would have done, had you not squandered every opportunity I gave you!”

“You’re lying. This is another of your tricks.” Despite his denial, he sensed a kernel of truth in Reuben’s words which enraged him. How could his dad have betrayed him like that?

“Don’t take my word for it. You have conscious control over the pleasure aspect of the implant, but we had you associate its use with a harmless placebo. If you wanted, you could feel mind-blowing pleasure, right now.”

“Wait…What?”

“You could control the implant all along. But we made you believe that a ‘drug’ we produced gave you the incredible high, so that we could keep you in line. Simple Pavlovian conditioning. Like a dog salivating to the sound of a dinner bell.”

He thought about it. Imagined something firing through the pleasure circuits of his brain. Ecstasy pulsed through his veins, dilating his eyes. A blissful, cloud-like feeling. The wondrous miracle of Metanox.

“Tom,” cried Isla. “We need to go now.” Her lips trembled. “I… I don’t feel right.”

“Are you alright? Isla?”

Reuben sniggered. “Isla? So that’s who you think you’re talking to. I’m afraid that’s a hallucination, caused by the chip in your head. She died years ago.”

“She’s holding my hand,” said Tom. “She’s standing right next to—”

He turned to see Isla’s face warping and contorting, a hideous tangle of flesh and sinew. Slimy, elongated fingers gripped his forearm. Terrified, he wrestled free.

“Don’t be afraid, Thomas,” a voice bubbled from the mutating flesh. A rasping voice. Another figure took shape: an old man with brown eyes, cheeks rosy with spider-veins and a bushy white moustache. Watson Fenwick, The Grandmaster. Tom covered his eyes. I’m hallucinating. This is not real.

He heard Isla’s voice and felt her touch on his shoulder. Her eyes glistened blue. “Tom. It’s me. I’m—”

She flickered out of existence, as if someone had suddenly yanked the game cartridge out of an old handheld console. He’d been interacting with nothing but air. Isla was dead. She’d died years ago. Grief pierced his soul like a needle. He buckled over, sobbing.

“Thomas,” said Reuben slowly, drawing out every syllable. He gripped the gun and pointed at the bastard, who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself. As well as the candle, Reuben now held an archaic looking electronic device. “This,” explained Reuben, “controls the implant in your mind. Allows me to specify the parameters of your existence. I control whether you experience ecstasy or pain. I can make you experience vivid hallucinations based on your deepest desires or your darkest fears. The device is deactivated now. If you had the controller, you might turn it on again. You could train your mind to experience unending euphoria. You could even set the device to alter your brain chemistry in more drastic ways. Who knows, if you flood your nervous system with glutamate and dopamine for long enough, you may even produce a permanent mental simulation of Isla. What would you give for that?”

His heart ached so much that he’d accept a delusional fantasy to stay with her.

“I’m sorry, old chap. But that’s no longer an option for you.” Reuben tossed the device in the pool before him. A loud splash.

Tom’s heart shattered.

Reuben smiled. “I wanted you to see her again. I wanted you to touch her and feel close to her, so I could pull the plug and shatter your dreams. You destroyed mine, Thomas. I’ve been expelled from Venom Empire!”

“You’re dead,” said Tom, raising the gun. Sweat trickled down his face.

“Go ahead,” said Reuben, bringing the candle close to his chest. “You may have noticed the smell of petrol. I don’t intend for either of us to live. I could probably wheedle my way back in to Venom Empire, but I’ll never command respect again. I’d rather admit my failure and die with dignity. Frankenstein should die with his monster, after all. Here’s an idea, Thomas. Why don’t you shove that gun in your mouth and blow your brains out? Then I’ll burn us both to a crisp.”

“I’ll kill you first.”

Reuben shrugged. “As you wish. There’s no way you’re getting out of here alive. But before the curtain call, there’s one thing I want you to understand. I’m not your enemy. Quite the contrary. I gave you pleasure and a livelihood, and you were content as long as you accepted what I gave you. Things only went awry when you resisted. Isn’t that so?”

“That doesn’t make it right.”

“Not everybody can be rich; not everybody can live the good life. Throughout history, there’s always been an oligarchy or ruling class. Capitalist, communist, feudalist… whatever system you live under, there’s always an elite. That’s the esoteric meaning of the pyramid. The elite on the top, the slaves at the bottom.” Reuben admired the painted mural of The Great Pyramid of Giza on the temple’s back wall.

“Sooner or later,” continued Reuben, “all revolutions against this arrangement fail because humans are hard-wired to follow a leader. Of course, that doesn’t stop the plebs from trying! In days gone by, the gentry obeyed religion. You promise people heaven tomorrow, but only if they toil today. Highly effective in its time. But in the modern, secular age, we desire a scientific means of control. To serve us, the masses must live an impoverished existence, but through new technologies we can make things enjoyable… Perhaps even euphoric. Like how you felt while you scrubbed bathroom floors for Metanox! Yes, one may question the ethics of how we treated you, but the ultimate aim is to free humanity from suffering. A laudable aim, in my opinion.”

Tom shook his head. “You just love power. This philosophical bollocks is what you tell yourself so you can sleep at night.”

“Oh, Thomas, I’ve told you before. I seldom have time to sleep. And I consider myself an abject failure. My plan was to have you complete a few years in Elixium management. Then I wanted to install you in the cabinet as health minister to help push through our agenda. But you defied me and walked away! I could have intervened by force, of course, but that would invalidate the experiment. So I monitored you. I knew you’d return like the prodigal son. Things were going so well. You’d been compliant, cleaning toilets and mopping floors, and now here you are pointing a gun in my face! I guess I underestimated your feelings for that stupid girl. If I’d kept her alive, perhaps you’d have realised she was a useless junkie.”

“Fuck you,” said Tom.

He squeezed the trigger, his eyes on Reuben as a gasp of horror replaced his usual sardonic grin. The bullet sank into Reuben’s chest and he dropped to the floor with a groan. The candle teetered over, sending fiery ripples across the floor.

As his body burned, Reuben took on an expression of serenity. He did not scream or shout. The flames enveloped him. Moments later, he was a searing ball of fire.

The flames fanned out, shooting up the red satin curtains, consuming the textiles. The temple filled with black, noxious smoke.

Tom did not move. Perhaps it was better to die here, as Reuben suggested. He’d never escape with his sprained ankle, and besides, what was there to live for? He had nothing to show for his forty-three years. No family, no friends, nothing. He should die, let the flames consume him too.

“Tom!” He heard a voice shouting through the passageway. Probably just his imagination.

“Tom!” shouted the voice again, and then Dave burst into the temple.

“Dave? What are you doing here?”

“Dr Palmer told me what you were up to and I followed you. Come on, we’ve got to hurry!”

The smoke and flames were rising, and Dave grabbed his hand, pulling him up from the floor. He limped along, following Dave, and they both left the temple. Dave slammed the door shut behind them.

“We won’t make it,” said Tom, as he hobbled down the stairs. “I bust my ankle. Save yourself.”

Dave shook his head. “Piggyback. Let’s go.”

“Dave, you’ve got a family. I’ve got nothing. Let me die here.”

“Will you listen to me for once?! That door’s gonna burn down fast and there’ll be fireballs ripping through these tunnels.”

Tom jumped on Dave’s back. Behind them, he heard crashes as the temple collapsed.

“I’m slowing you down,” said Tom.

“Hush,” said Dave, reaching the bottom of the stairs. They rushed forwards until they reached a junction.

“We’ll get lost,” said Tom.

“No we won’t,” said Dave. Tom noticed a white arrow sprayed on the wall. “A little forward planning.”

They continued through the passageways, Tom clutching tightly to Dave. Once they reached the foot of the spiral staircase, Tom jumped down from Dave’s back. He climbed the stairs as quickly as he could, Dave following behind him.

A massive explosion shook the building.

“Hurry,” shouted Dave.

A jet of fire lashed along the tunnel beneath them like dragon’s breath. Flames licked at their feet as they climbed the stairs.

When they reached the main hall, they discovered the piles of detritus were already ablaze. Tom held on to Dave’s shoulders and hobbled along as fast as he could. They crossed a fiery carpet of cinders and escaped the building.

Outside, Tom wheezed as he tried to catch his breath.

“You ok?” asked Dave. He was bent over with his hands on his knees. Sweat dripped from his face.

Before Tom could answer, a loud crash from inside the building jolted him. The roof of the old factory collapsed. Tom gasped; they could have easily been crushed to death.

*

From the safety of Dave’s car, Tom watched the old factory burn to the ground. He thought of Reuben, his body veiled in fire, and an image of Isla flooded into his mind. She was smiling, the little gap between her front teeth on display. He remembered the first time he saw her, beating a load of lads in a drinking contest. She was such a cheeky minx. He’d never forget her.

Dave rested in the driving seat, his eyes closed.

“I’m sorry,” said Tom. “For all the hell I put you through. You should have left me in there.”

“Nonsense. I should have been there. Even when you pushed me away.”

“You did what you could. I’m an addict.”

“I should have tried harder. I was too focused on myself. We were supposed to be friends.”

“I’m no good. What can I offer the world?”

“You’ve got brains. You’re smart.”

“I can’t even add up anymore.”

“You’re just a little rusty, that’s all. Come on, what’s four times eight.”

It took all his effort. He frowned as he tried to work out the answer. He tried his old techniques: visualisation, trying to see the numbers as food, hearing the numbers as sounds. None of these methods worked. Eventually he figured out the answer, but he had to use his fingers.

“Thirty-two,” he said, finally.

“See?”

“Any school kid can do that.”

“Twenty four times fifty six. Come on, I know you can do it.”

He frowned, straining to figure out the answer. “I can’t,” he said, with tears in his eyes. According to Reuben, his ‘gift’ was an experiment in cognitive enhancement. He struggled with the idea. Did Reuben lie to him about the brain chip? Might his heavy drug and alcohol use explain the loss of his gift? Were his hallucinations merely a product of stress and his drug-frazzled mind?

Dave frowned. “Okay, so maybe you’re not a human calculator anymore, but so what. I believe in you.”

“It’s pointless. Venom Empire—the rest of those fuckers. They’ll be searching for me. They’ll track me down and kill me, anyway.”

“I’ve taken care of that. You’re flying to Seville to live with Teresa’s cousin. They’ll think you died in the fire. I wish you’d have got to know Teresa better. She’s a really kind person. Tomorrow you’ll wake up in the Spanish sun. It’ll be a new start for you.”

Could he live through this? Without Metanox? Without drugs? Without Isla? Could he start afresh?

“I don’t know if I can live anymore.”

“You can. You’re stronger than you think. You just out-smarted Reuben Fenwick!”

Despite the daily battle to resist temptation, two weeks of sobriety had done him the world of good. “But what if I stray? I can’t trust myself.”

“I’ll help you,” said Dave, turning the key in the ignition and starting the car. “Are you ready for the rest of your life, Tom?”

Tom nodded, and as the car sped away from the burning factory, he felt alive and hopeful for the future. He pictured himself getting lost in the labyrinthine, cobbled streets of Seville. A far cry from the rainy West Country with its Andalusian architecture and orange trees. There’d be many days of grief and soul searching ahead. Staying sober would take all his strength, but he knew with Dave’s help he’d make it. He’d slowly rebuild his life, and maybe one day he’d even fall in love again. The car reached the end of a country lane and Dave turned on to the main road, heading towards the airport. In the distance, the sun dawned over Bristol.

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